Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Yes, Steve Martin can REALLY, REALLY play the banjo

At last, after years and years of wondering, I have the answer to an old question of mine: Is Steve Martin REALLY a decent musician? I always knew he was a gifted and endearingly goofy comedian and actor. I always knew he was a good writer –- copies of his books occupy one of the shelves in my house, and I absolutely love the movie Bowfinger. I also, always knew he had a lot of unusual, seemingly unrelated talents, including balloon twisting and playing the banjo.

Oh, that banjo! It was a constant presence in Steve Martin’s comedy routines earlier in his career. He always played it just long enough to make one suspect that, hey, maybe this guy really can play. But –- oh -– how frustrating that his playing was almost constantly interrupted in the name of comic effect. I just wanted to hear one complete song, played straight, with no interruptions or jokes. ONE SONG on that banjo.

Of course, there's long been a problem with banjos in public perception. In popular culture during the last few decades, banjo music has been unfairly cursed by the movie Deliverance and the joke born of it: “Row faster, I hear banjos!” In spite of that, I’ve always loved banjo music. I’m no expert on banjos by any means, but I’ve always loved the way they sound. Bluegrass, in particular -- that most banjo-friendly music -- has an almost otherwordly yet earthy sound. It seems determined to get people to relax and enjoy life’s experiences —- triumphs, heartaches, and everything in between.

So, imagine my surprise when, this morning, thanks to CNN.com, I found out that Steve Martin has released an album of his banjo music: The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo. Apparently, the album has been available via Amazon.com for a few months now, but it’s only recently been released in regular distribution, including on CD. (I do download music on occasion, but I still prefer using CDs as my primary source for MP3 files. There have been too many instances where I lost music because a device failed on me -- so I’m more comfortable with the relative “permanency” of CDs.) I kid you not, I contacted THREE STORES during lunch today before I finally found a copy of the CD to purchase. All the other stores were sold out, with new orders pending.

(On a blog-related note: Weirdly enough, on 96th Street, while driving to the store, I saw a guy wearing a Green Lantern T-shirt -– young guy, in his twenties, running across the street toward the group of fast-food restaurants on the other side. Hey, mister --! If you ever read this, I just want to know: Are you a REAL Green Lantern fan, or do you just like to dress like you’re on Big Bang Theory?)

Anyway, I finally obtained a CD, got back to the office, loaded the CD into iTunes and my iPod, and ... oh, my.

YES, Steve Martin really does play well. AMAZINGLY well. This isn’t like one of those albums from a successful actor or athlete who decides one day to become a singer or a rap artist -– and then quickly proves that the desire may be there, but there’s no talent or training. No, Mr. Martin is GOOD. VERY good.

This is no comedy album (though the song “Late for School,” sung by Martin himself, is delightfully silly). It’s truly good music played by an accomplished banjo artist and an impressive array of musical pros -- Vince Gill, Dolly Parton, and Earl Scruggs, just to name a few. Mr. Martin also wrote all of the songs on the album (except one) himself, proving that his talent for writing isn’t limited to prose and dialog. The songs are a nice mix -- bluegrass/Irish, vocal/instrumental -- and from what I can tell via my third listen, there doesn’t seem to be a weak song in the bunch. They're played with such obvious joy and enthusiasm, though, that I don't think even a weak song would sound weak, anyway. I'm willing to bet this is an album any bluegrass artist would be proud to claim as his or her own.

I wonder why, when I first heard the opening song, “Daddy Played the Banjo,” tears came to my eyes? Maybe it’s because I have waited a long time to hear Steve Martin play -- I mean, REALLY play -- and it was even better than I hoped. Or maybe it's because this wonderful album came on the heels of a VERY trying couple of weeks at my publishing company. Or maybe it’s because the song itself is so lovely and wistful.

With that song in mind: YES, Mr. Martin -- a kid is listening to you right now. My tiny daughter is happily clapping her hands and hopping around the living room to your music, inspired to dance in that sweet, awkward way toddlers dance. Thank you for this album. THANK YOU.


Maxo said...

"... or do you just like to dress like you’re on Big Bang Theory?" just made my day. (And "The Pleasure of My Company" is one of my favorites!)

SallyP said...

I LOVE banjo music! I played guitar, and my little sister played banjo back in the day, and we actually weren't too bad.

But I had no idea that Steve Martin had released an album. I DID hear him play at the University of Connecticut MANY years ago, because he used to regularly have concerts. Silly concerts, of course. And just like the Smothers Brothers,he never actually finished a song. But he WAS funny.

I also love bagpipes.

Sea-of-Green said...

I like bagpipes, too. Oddly, Mr. Sea isn't crazy about them, even though he's half Scottish!

We had a banjo in the house when I was growing up, but no one knew how to play it. Frustrating.